2016 LRC Year-End Rankings, Men’s Steeplechase: Conseslus Kipruto Ascends to #1 After a Year to Remember; Evan Jager Leads Americans Again

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By LetsRun.com
December 29, 2016

(What do you think of the rankings? Talk about them on the messageboard / fan forum. MB: 2016 Men’s Steeple rankings: Conseslus Kipruto enjoyed one of the finest years in history, PKK calls it a career )

With few professional events on the running calendar until 2017, LetsRun.com is once again rolling out its year-end rankings of the mid-d and distance events (2014 rankings here; 2015 rankings here). From now until the end of the year, we’ll be ranking the top 10 men and women in the world (plus the top five Americans) in the 800, 1500/mile, 3000 steeplechase, 3,000/5,000 and marathon. We hope you enjoy reading these rankings as much as we enjoyed putting them together.

Since these rankings are obviously subjective, we’ll lay out the criteria we’re using for them:

  • An emphasis on performance in big races. How the athlete fared in the Olympics is obviously a major consideration but winning Olympic gold doesn’t guarantee that an athlete will earn a #1 ranking. For U.S. athletes, their performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials also factors heavily in the rankings.
  • Season-best times matter but they’re less important if the time wasn’t run against good competition.
  • Runners who specialized in one event will be considered for other events but can be penalized in the rankings for not running enough races.
  • Indoor races will be considered and can help an athlete’s ranking, with an emphasis on World Indoors.

LRC 2015 men’s steeplechase rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2016 Olympic Steeple Recap Evan Jager Wins Silver, Kenya’s Dominance In The Steeplechase Continues As Conseslus Kipruto Wins Gold, Ezekiel Kemboi Wins Bronze and Retires

LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings

World Rankings

Though Ezekiel Kemboi didn’t finish #1 in our world rankings in either 2014 or 2015, he had reigned as the undisputed king of the event recently at global championships, winning every World/Olympic title from 2009 through 2015. But in 2016, the 34-year-old Kemboi was finally overthrown as countryman Conseslus Kipruto, second to Kemboi at Worlds in 2013 and 2015, seized the crown. Only 22, Kemboi has the front-running ability of Jairus Birech and the closing speed of Kemboi, making him an impossible matchup for the rest of the world’s steeplers. Though he has still yet to break 8:00 (it’s only a matter of time), he seems poised to dominate the event for years to come.

Unless, of course, Evan Jager has anything to say about it. Jager was favored to earn a medal last year in Beijing but came up short; he came into 2016 with a new attitude and was rewarded with a silver in Rio. Jager has yet to find the pure speed at the end of a steeple to rival Kipruto, but he still possesses a formidable blend of strength (13:02 5k pb) and speed (3:32 1500 pb) that will make him dangerous for years to come. Plus Kemboi will be back in 2017 for one last go-around, and if you think we’re counting out the greatest championship steepler in history, you’re crazy.

1. Conseslus Kipruto • Kenya • 22 years old • 8:00.12 sb (#1) • Olympic champion • Diamond League champion • 2nd at Kenyan Olympic Trials

DL results: 1st Doha, 1st Rabat, 1st Rome, 1st Birmingham, 1st Monaco, 1st Brussels (DL final)

No one broke 8:00 this year for the first time since 2010, but Kipruto came close on several occasions, including an 8:00.12 in Birmingham. Kipruto was utterly dominant. He had the world’s five fastest times this year (and seven of the top 10), and broke 8:04 five times (most since Moses Kiptanui in 1997). He won seven of his eight finals, the lone exception coming at the Kenyan Olympic Trials, where he, Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto joked their way through the final 100 meters. And though his margin of victory was only one second in Rio, it seemed like a lot more than that as Kipruto was celebrating before he had even hurdled the final barrier. His 8:03.28 winning time was also an Olympic record.

Quite simply, this was one of the finest years ever by a steeplechaser.

LRC 2016 Olympic Steeple Recap Evan Jager Wins Silver, Kenya’s Dominance In The Steeplechase Continues As Conseslus Kipruto Wins Gold, Ezekiel Kemboi Wins Bronze and Retires
LRC Brussels Diamond League Recap – Evan Jager Challenges Conseslus Kipruto to the Line, Kiprop Has a Problem with His Shorts, Machine Beats Man and Elaine Thompson Runs Fast
LRC Conseslus Kipruto archives

2. Evan Jager • USA • 27 years old • 8:04.01 sb (#3) • Olympic silver medalist • U.S. Olympic Trials champion

DL results: 2nd Brussels (DL final)

Jager had the talent to win a medal at last year’s World Championships in Beijing, but when the moment of truth arrived, he faltered. Unlike his previous appearance in global finals (London 2012, Moscow 2013), in China Jager faced the expectations of winning a medal — externally, but more importantly, internally — and during the final, the Illinois native felt he was “pressing” and dedicating too much mental and emotional energy to remaining in the front of the pack. Though Jager was in position to challenge for a medal when the kicking began, he had nothing over the final lap and staggered home in sixth. He wasn’t even the top American: that honor went to teammate Dan Huling.

Jager knew that if his medal dreams were to become reality in Rio, he needed a new approach. So he worked daily, during practices and races, on staying relaxed, trying to spend as little energy as possible until the end of races, when he truly needed it. He cruised to wins at Oxy and the U.S. Olympic Trials — his fifth straight U.S. title — but the real test came in Brazil, and Jager passed with flying colors. Jager took the lead midway through the Olympic final, but even then, he looked relaxed as Jager, Kipruto and Kemboi broke away from the rest of the field. Though Jager could not match Kipruto’s kick, he passed Kemboi just before the final barrier to lock down the silver medal. The resulting images of Jager’s exultation at the finish line were among the most iconic of the Games for American distance fans, the kind of joy that only comes after years of dedication and a near-miss along the way.

The 27-year-old Jager has owned the event domestically since he debuted in 2012, and we expect that to continue for the next Olympic cycle. The bigger questions are how many more medals can he win, and can he become the first non-African-born man to break the fabled 8:00 barrier?

The only negative to Jager’s season was he barely showed up on the DL circuit (once, after Rio). That made total sense for 2016 given it was an Olympic year and the near sub-8 before Worlds last year put a lot of pressure on Jager, but he needs to race more on the circuit as we hold it against runners (Genzebe Dibaba) that don’t race much on the DL circuit.

LRC A New, More Relaxed Evan Jager Heads to His Second Olympic Final with a Medal on His Mind
LRC One For The Thumb: Evan Jager Wins The 2016 US Olympic Trials Men’s Steeplechase – His 5th Straight US Title
LRC Evan Jager archives

3. Jairus Birech • Kenya • 24 years old • 8:03.90 sb (#2)

DL results: 2nd Doha, 2nd Rabat, 2nd Rome, 5th Birmingham, 4th Lausanne

“How can he be #3 in the world? He didn’t even make the Olympics!”

Well when it comes to Jairus Birech, it’s complicated. First, when it comes to the men’s steeplechase, simple math dictates that some of the world’s best runners are going to be left out of the Olympics. Seven of the 10 fastest men in the world this year were Kenyan and Kenya can only send three guys to the Olympics. But Birech’s situation was especially weird. Going into the Kenyan Olympic Trials, he was led to believe he was assured of a spot in the Games. Birech was banged up entering the meet, so after qualifying in his heat, he dropped out midway through the final. Unfortunately for him, Conseslus Kipruto, Ezekiel Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto decided to force Athletics Kenya’s hand. The three men toasted the field in the Trials final, with Conseslus Kipruto and Kemboi allowing Brimin Kipruto to win

Athletics Kenya wasn’t going to leave off Conseslus Kipruto, who had dominated the Diamond League all year long. And they weren’t going to leave off Kemboi, who had won five straight global titles. But after Brimin Kipruto, the 2008 Olympic champ, had won the Trials, how could they leave him off too? They didn’t, taking Kipruto over Birech to Rio (a source told us that the two Kiprutos and Kemboi let Brimin Kipruto win as they knew if the reigning Olympic champ Kipruto ‘won’ the Trials he’d be put on the team and thus they wouldn’t have to worry about Birech in Rio). The decision was defensible, but Birech wound up on the short end of the stick, in part because Kenya’s Trials, unlike the U.S. system, allow for some wiggle room (for example, Athletics Kenya essentially ignored the results of the men’s 10,000 at the Trials and took two wildcards instead). What actually unfolded was undoubtedly an interesting situation, but in this case the fairest solution would have been for Athletics Kenya to make clear BEFORE THE RACE that the selection criteria would be the first three past the post.

With that said, Birech was very good on the Diamond League circuit and finished with the second-fastest time in the world behind Kipruto. However, he’s yet to show that he’s a championship steepler (remember, he was fourth at Worlds last year despite entering as the favorite), something he will look to remedy next year in London.

LRC in Kenya One Week, Three Workouts: Behind the Scenes with Renato Canova, Florence Kiplagat, Thomas Longosiwa and Jairus Birech
LRC Jairus Birech archives

4. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad • France • 31 years old • 8:08.15 sb (#3) • Olympic bronze medallist • European champion

DL results: 3rd Brussels (DL final)

Mekhissi-Benabbad may be the one with the Olympic medal, but anyone who watched that race should recognize Ezekiel Kemboi as the rightful bronze medallist. Kemboi crossed the line in third, over three seconds up on Mekhissi-Benabbad (despite slowing down at the line), yet was DQ’d for putting one foot inside the cones over a mile from the finish line. Technically, Kemboi did not run the full distance and was liable to disqualification. France lodged a protest, which was granted, handing the bronze to Mekhissi-Benabbad — despite the fact that Kemboi’s action had zero impact on the outcome of the race.

Our article about that race was one of the most popular of the year: Olympic Debacle: The French Have Forgotten What The Olympics Are Supposed To Be About – Ezekiel Kemboi DQ’d From Men’s Steeple After Protest.

With that said, Mekhissi-Benabbad still did more than Kemboi outside of Rio (including a win at Europeans and a third in the Diamond League final) to earn the #4 ranking.

LRC Olympic Debacle: The French Have Forgotten What The Olympics Are Supposed To Be About – Ezekiel Kemboi DQ’d From Men’s Steeple After Protest

5. Ezekiel Kemboi • Kenya • 34 years old • 8:14.19 sb (#12) • 3rd at Kenyan Olympic Trials

DL results: 12th Doha, 11th Rome

Again, Kemboi isn’t the official Olympic bronze medallist, but his run in Rio counts for something in our eyes, even if the rest of his season wasn’t particularly impressive (aside from the Kenyan Trials). Kemboi did win one race, at the IAAF World Challenge in Beijing in May (though the very best guys were absent), but he was poor in his two Diamond League showings, as has become his custom in recent years. That doesn’t mean he’s not still the championship GOAT, but we can’t justify ranking him any higher than fifth when he doesn’t run fast and gets smoked on the circuit.

The only good thing to come out of Kemboi’s Olympic DQ is that it inspired him to return in 2017. Initially Kemboi had announced his retirement after earning his third Olympic medal in Rio, but once he heard about the French protest (and his subsequent DQ), Kemboi vowed vengeance on Facebook, switching from first to third person midway through his statement: “now i feel that i have to bring back this medal not by protesting again but right on track. Kemboi is not retired i will be coming to London 2017 to re-claim my medal from France. No limits.”

We’ll take one more year of this, thank you very much.

LRC Farewell to the GOAT: Ezekiel Kemboi, the World’s Greatest Steeplechaser, Retires (Then Unretires)
LRC Ezekiel Kemboi archives

6. Soufiane El Bakkali • Morocco • 20 years old • 8:14.35 sb (#13) • 4th at Olympics

DL results: 10th Rabat, 4th Monaco, 9th Brussels (DL final)

El Bakkali, who finished fourth at World Juniors two years ago, acquitted himself very well in his first senior global championship, taking fourth in Rio. Only 20 years old, he has much room for improvement in the years to come. It’s nice to see someone from Africa but not from Kenya with a shot at a medal.

7. Yoann Kowal • France • 29 years old • 8:16.21 sb (#17) • 5th at Olympics • European silver medallist

DL results: 5th Rabat, 4th Rome, 8th Brussels (DL final)

Kowal, who switched from the 1500 to the steeple in 2013, has seen that decision start to pay dividends. He was eighth at Worlds three years ago, and though he bombed out of Worlds in the heats last year, he made it to the final in Rio and ran well to give France two finishers in the top five.

8. Brimin Kipruto • Kenya • 31 years old • 8:18.79 sb (#25) • 6th at Olympics • Kenyan Olympic Trials champion

DL results: 14th Rome, 4th Birmingham, 5th Lausanne, 13th Brussels (DL final)

Kipruto’s 8:18 SB was his slowest season’s best since 2003 (he’d run 8:10 or faster in every other year) but he still managed to place sixth at the Olympics, which means he’s finished in the top seven at every global championship but one since 2004 (he didn’t run at Worlds in 2013). Kipruto ran his best race of the season in Eldoret to win the Kenyan Trials on July 1, but he couldn’t quite carry that performance over to Rio.

9. Paul Kipsiele Koech • Kenya • 35 years old • 8:08.32 sb (#25) • 6th at Kenyan Olympic Trials

DL results: 7th Doha, 3rd Rabat, 3rd Rome, 2nd Birmingham, 2nd Monaco, 10th Lausanne, 14th Brussels (DL final)

Here’s a ridiculous stat: Koech has finished the season as one of the world’s six fastest men for 15 years in a row. Conseslus Kipruto was six years old when Koech ran 8:05 back in 2002; now Kipruto is the Olympic champion and Koech is still going strong.

Koech had a more impressive Diamond League season than Brimin Kipruto, who ranks ahead of him on this list, but Kipruto owned a 3-2 edge including, vitally, the Olympic Trials. Indeed, races at altitude have been the one stumbling block in Koech’s remarkable career and that explains why he’s made just one Olympic team and earned just one global medal (2004 Olympic bronze). Consider 2007, when Koech posted the world’s four fastest times and won the season-ending World Athletics Final but failed to even qualify for the World Championships.

Still, earning even one medal at a global championship is hard to do (just ask Evan Jager), and Koech, who retired after the Diamond League final in Brussels, leaves a legacy as one of the fastest, most consistent steeplers ever (his 7:54.31 is #3 all-time) — just not the most decorated.

Men with multiple career sub-8:00 steeples
10, Saif Saaeed Shaheen, Qatar
9, Paul Koech, Kenya
3, Ezekiel Kemboi, Kenya
3, Moses Kiptanui, Kenya
3, Brahim Boulami, Morocco
2, Jairus Birech, Kenya
2, Bernard Barmasai, Kenya

LRC Paul Kipsiele Koech archives

10. Barnabas Kipyego • Kenya • 21 years old • 8:09.13 sb (#6) • 9th at Kenyan Olympic Trials

DL results: 5th Doha, 3rd Birmingham, 3rd Monaco, 12th Lausanne

Kipyego, the 2014 World Junior champ, is a promising prospect but unfortunately found himself blocked by Kenya’s top-tier talent (consider: between them, Kenya’s 2016 Olympic team accounted for the past four Olympic titles). Conseslus Kipruto should be a fixture on Kenyan teams for quite a while, but with Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto both in their 30s and Koech retired, there could be an opening for Kipyego soon.

U.S. Rankings

Jager owns this event domestically, and if he can stay healthy, the question isn’t if Jager can break Henry Marsh‘s record of seven straight U.S. steeple titles, but how many more can Jager win? Donn Cabral remains a tough competitor, now with two top-eight finishes at the Olympics under his belt, while fellow Olympian Hillary Bor has yet to realize his ultimate potential. Bowerman Track Club teammates Dan Huling and Andy Bayer were both formidable this year (Huling unfortunately undone by a toe injury that compromised his Trials buildup), as was Stanley Kebenei, while NCAA champ Mason Ferlic should challenge for U.S. teams in the years to come.

1. Evan Jager (see above)

2. Hillary Bor • U.S. Army • 27 years old • 8:13.68 sb (#2 in US) • 7th at Olympics • U.S. Olympic Trials runner-up

DL results: 6th Brussels

Bor made a massive breakthrough this year under coach Scott Simmons, lowering his personal best from 8:32 to 8:13 and making the Olympic team, where he PR’d in the final to finish seventh. Bor trained intermittently for a few years after graduating from Iowa State in 2011, but he began to get serious this year even while working full-time as a U.S. Army soldier in the finance department. Bor won his first steeple of the year at the Stanford Invite on April 1 in a PR of 8:30 and never looked back, PRing four more times in 2016.

Bor was accepted into the Army’s WCAP program after making the Olympic team, which will allow him to focus on training and recovery. Considering what he was able to do in 2016, Bor isn’t putting any limits on himself next year. Nor should he.

“I think with one more year of training, I think I can run with those guys (the best in the world),” Bor said after the Olympic final.

LRC Hillary Bor archives

3. Donn Cabral • Nike/NJ*NY Track Club • 27 years old • 8:20.72 sb (#7 in US) • 8th at Olympics • 3rd at U.S. Olympic Trials

DL results: 6th Lausanne

Cabral called his 2016 season mediocre after the Olympic final, but he still managed to finish higher at the Olympics (eighth) than he did at Worlds last year (10th). It helped that Kenya could only send three to Rio (and one of those men was DQ’d), but it’s also a credit to Cabral’s toughness and smarts that he was even at the Olympics in the first place. Cabral, a perfectionist, initially wasn’t thrilled with his third-place finish at the Trials, but that race was a perfect example of Cabral’s ability to remain cool under pressure. He didn’t panic when he was fourth at the bell and getting dropped, and despite entering the final water jump in fifth (and having to hurdle a downed Kebenei on his way out of the pit), Cabral ran down Andy Bayer to punch his ticket to the Games.

Now the question is what, if anything, went wrong for Cabral this year and whether he run even faster than the 8:13 he clocked in 2015.

LRC Donn Cabral archives

4. Andy Bayer • Nike Bowerman Track Club • 26 years old • 8:16.11 sb (#3 in US) • 4th at U.S. Olympic Trials

DL results: 6th Monaco, 8th Lausanne, 7th Brussels (DL final)

It feels like it’s only a matter of time until Bayer makes his first U.S. team. Bayer has improved his time every year since adopting the steeple in 2014 (from 8:25 in 2014 to 8:18 last year to 8:16 this year) and has responded well to Diamond League competition. But once again, he just missed out on a spot on Team USA, finishing fourth at USAs, just as he did at the last Olympic Trials (in the 1500) and last year (in the steeple).

Bayer was second heading into the final turn at the Trials, but was clipped just before the water jump (losing precious momentum) and had nothing over the last barrier, where Cabral moved past him. As we noted last year, Bayer has a good situation with a pair of great steeple coaches (Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert) and high-quality training partners in Jager, Huling and Matt Hughes. Just a little more progress and he could finally get to Worlds in 2017 — though that’s far easier said than done.

UPDATE: Bayer announced earlier this month that he’s leaving Bowerman Track Club to train under college coach Ron Helmer.

LRC Andy Bayer archives

5. Mason Ferlic • Nike • 23 years old • 8:21.57 sb (#8 in US) • 5th at U.S. Olympic Trials • NCAA champion

Ferlic put together a stellar senior season at Michigan, culminating with three successful trips to Eugene. First, he coasted to the NCAA title on June 10. He returned four weeks later to take fifth at the Olympic Trials on July 8, and made one final trip out west on July 29 where he smashed his personal best to clock 8:21.57, beating out Bayer, Kebenei and Craig Forys in the process.

What do you think of the rankings? Talk about them on the messageboard / fan forum. MB: 2016 Men’s Steeple rankings: Conseslus Kipruto enjoyed one of the finest years in history, PKK calls it a career 

LRC Full NCAA Men’s Recap: Jarrion Lawson Pulls Off the 100-200-LJ Triple, King Ches Wins #15, Mason Ferlic Dominates 2800m of Steeple and Florida Claims the Team Title
LRC Mason Ferlic archives


LRC 2015 men’s steeplechase rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2016 Olympic Steeple Recap Evan Jager Wins Silver, Kenya’s Dominance In The Steeplechase Continues As Conseslus Kipruto Wins Gold, Ezekiel Kemboi Wins Bronze and Retires

LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings